Teaching: CROSSROADS OF CULTURES. Mali is the crossroads of West Africa. Its capital Timbuktu is both on the desert’s edge—conducting trans-Sahara trade from Algeria to Burkina Faso and coastal nations—and on the banks of the Niger River—which runs through the middle of Mali and Timbuktu connecting Guinea with Niger, Benin and Nigeria. The same access which makes Mali easy to trade with also makes it prone to pressure and attack.
In the 11th century the Muslim Almoravid dynasty spread from North Africa southward across the desert, bringing pressure which weakened the Ghana Empire, from which the ancient Mali Empire would arise. In 1203 the Ghana Empire fell into the hands of the anti-Muslim Sosso Kingdom which was expanding northward. In 1240 Sundiata Keita led a coalition of Malians, then known as Mandinkas, to defeat the Sosso and begin the ancient Mali Empire. Most of Sundiata’s successors were Muslim, including the world-renowned Mansa Musa I.
THE WORLD’S RICHEST MAN BUILDS MALI’S BIGGEST MOSQUES. Mansa Musa, “king of kings” of the ancient Mali Empire, was recently named the richest man in history by Celebrity Networth. He beat out the #2 Rothschilds, #8 Muammar Ghaddafi and #12 Bill Gates. Musa gained his net worth of $400 billion (inflation adjusted) from the Mali Empire’s immense production of over half of the world’s supply of gold and salt. On his 1324 pilgrimage from Timbuktu to Mecca he brought 12,000 slaves, each bearing 4 lb. gold bars which Musa spent or gave away, devaluing the metal in Cairo, Medina and Mecca for an entire decade. Within two generations his wealth was gone and his realm was broken in two. The Songhai Empire co-existed with the ancient Mali Empire until the end of the 16th century. But the massive mosques Musa built still stand in Timbuktu and elsewhere in Mali today.
In 1591 another Muslim dynasty from North Africa, the Saadi, spread southward. The Saadi conquered both the Songhai Empire and the Mali Empire but could not hold them very long. Mali was divided into several small kingdoms for the next three centuries, making it easy to conquer when the French came to colonize Mali in 1892. France carved out an artificial border for Mali which is the source of many troubles today, since it grouped the lighter-skinned northern desert Tuareg people with conflicting black ethnic groups of the southern grasslands.
FROM FRENCH COLONY TO DEMOCRACY TO FRENCH ALLY. Independence movements swept over Africa in the 1950s and 60s. Mali broke from France and pursued a socialist policy in tandem with the Eastern bloc which quickly failed and threw it into deep poverty, from which it has yet to recover. Mali rejoined the Franc Zone in 1967, but attempts at economic reforms were undermined by internal ethnic and political struggles that did not stabilize until 1982. Then the growing fervor for multiparty democracies in Africa hit Mali in the 1990s, and new opposition movements turned into legal political parties.
Into this mix the desert Tuareg people returned from a long sojourn in their original homeland, North Africa. They brought with them many of the militant Muslims who had been defeated in the Algerian civil war of the 1990s. Identifying themselves as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghred (AQIM), the militants attracted jihadists of other nationalities and subsisted by kidnapping and ransoming mostly French expatriates. AQIM stirred up the long-simmering conflict between the light-skinned Tuareg people and the dominant black Africans in southern Mali. The government reacted with harsh and effective suppression, fearing that these militant Muslims would secede and take resource-rich northern Mali with them.
In the 2000s Mali transitioned into a multiparty democracy with freedom of religion, allowing small churches to take root in its various cultures. The Mali government has remained secular despite its overwhelmingly Muslim population and the pressure from surrounding nations to become a Muslim state. But in January 2012 AQIM led other radical Muslims in the north to revolt. They included Tuareg militants trained in Libya who brought back a trove of weapons after the fallof Muammar Gadhafi. A contingent of Mali’s military, angry at the slow response of President Amadou Toureto this threat, staged a coup d’etat in March. But it quickly collapsed, leaving Mali broken into an extremist Muslim mini-state in the north and a weakened secular government in the south. Government calls for help to Europe and fellow West African states went unheeded. AQIM kept moving south, taking Gao, Timbuktu and many other key cities until they seized the strategic town of Konna from Mali’s army. Then on January 11, 2013, France, risking retaliation from its growing Muslim population at home, sent air strikes and troops to retake Konna, aiming at a “total reconquest”of Mali. At this writing they are helping Mali’s army to drive the militants back northward one town at a time. They have occupied the airport at Gao, and are moving to take back Timbuktu.
France is intervening not only to protect French expatriates from further kidnapping, but to prevent militant Islam from conquering the West Africa which France once owned, and from spreading further south in the continent. But France, like many other former colonial powers, is responsible for framing borders which forced enemies into the same room. Mali’s civil war is exacerbated by the fact that it is one of the poorest nations in the world. The southern black population of Mali refuses to give up the resource-rich north. The northern Tuareg have joined with al Qaeda-linked allies to overthrow their oppressors in the south. Drug cartels are offering them money and weapons to allow the transshipment of drugs across the desert. In the midst of this strife, 700 evangelical churches are reaching all of Mali’s ethnic groups, but have yet to make serious inroads. Now that the world’s attention is focused on Mali, it is time for worldwide prayer to turn the tide against the evils plaguing this nation (see this website’s Prayer Alert: “Keeping civil wars in Algeria and Mali from inciting world war” and News Update: “Al Qaeda aims takeover of all of Mali”).
Related sources for history from the ancient Mali empire to the present intervention in Mali
Operation World by Jason Mandryk, Biblica, 2010
The Kingdom of God in Africa by Mark Shaw, Baker 1996
A History of Christianity in Africa by Elizabeth Isichei, SPCK 1995
the ancient Mali Empire